“If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know…”
This statement has never been more relevant. Last week, the US Senate “passed the FISA Amendments Act, broadly expanding the president’s warrantless surveillance authority and unconstitutionally granting retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in the president’s illegal domestic wiretapping program.”1 This provides legitimacy for the administration’s massive global communications interception programs, which have been aggressively developed since 2001. As part of this, the NSA has been “tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication systemâ€™s main arteries,â€2 with co-operation from telecommunications giants such as AT&T Corp.
Why should we care? If we trust the government absolutely, then it’s fine for the NSA to be monitoring phone calls and email. This information would never be used for anything other than the most upstanding purposes. However, our government is made up of human beings. Humans get jealous, humans take bribes, humans are manipulated, humans try to further their own goals at the expense of others. Sadly, our government has a long history of abusing its power to monitor citizens in order to achieve political or commercial goals (see Watergate, Project Minaret, ECHELON’s use for spying on representatives and activist groups).
When the government can monitor everyone’s communications, what is to prevent it from weeding out “troublemakers” –individuals that, through speech, threaten the government’s political agenda? This has happened over and over again throughout the world’s history, America included. (Valerie Plame, anyone?) Is it really hard for a government to make someone lose their job, fall on hard luck, become discredited, or even die from some tragic accident? If we collect a lifetime of detailed information about everyone, how hard would it be to find some embarrassing comment or action– anything– to use as blackmail? Monitoring will only make those in power more powerful, and harder for others to speak out.
Compounding the issue is our ever-increasing reliance on electronic mediums for communicating and organizing people. The average American is strangely isolated. Even in the cities, we work for ourselves, fend for ourselves, don’t know our neighbors. Our families rarely live within walking distance. The Internet, cell phones, cars, public transportation help bring us closer together, but at a price– our movements can be tracked, our words captured, and we can be separated from our communities with the push of a button. Our lives and social networks are dependent upon mechanisms outside of our control. When it comes to organizing ourselves, or even surviving, we are at the mercy of others. We the People are in a very precarious position.
When you design software, you include error-checking, because you must assume that things will not always go smoothly. Similarly, a government can’t be trusted to always run correctly, and must be designed so that it will keep itself in check. Why did our founding fathers take such pains to divide power in the government? You have to be very careful not to give the government so much power that its own people can no longer control it.
Once the American government is allowed to monitor any citizen’s private communications, then we have essentially given up our right to free speech, and placed our power to organize ourselves into grave jeopardy. That happened this week.
Part of the solution is to take our privacy into our own hands– ie, by using encryption for our private communications. One problem with email encryption these days, however, is that it’s rarely used, and so sending an encrypted message sends up an immediate red flag that you’ve got something to hide. It’s also not difficult to circumvent encryption when host-based security is so poor– if I really wanted to know what someone was writing about now, I could just install a keylogger on his or her machine, or steal his or her private key, which is probably stored on a machine connected to the Internet. If I were the government, I might have the capability to break encryption right now anyway without going to such trouble.
Email is only a small part of the problem. There are many different types of data that can be gathered about a person– for example, voice data. It’s strongly suspected, and in some cases confirmed, that government organizations world-wide (and the NSA in particular) have exerted pressure on the cellular industry in order to cripple cell phone encryption capability. The algorithms currently in widespread use are so weak as to be nearly useless. (See Wired’s article about the CMEA, Barlow’s “Decrypting the Puzzle Palace,” also Google for GSM security and the history of A5 development.)
So how can We the People protect ourselves?
1. Keep the government as transparent as possible. Ensure that the media is actively investigating and reporting its activities. Hold officials accountable for their actions. Actively request information. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows individuals to “request access to federal agency records or information”3
2. Limit the government’s powers. Don’t allow the government capabilities which will seriously infringe upon the people’s ability to keep it in check. This week, the EFF began their “Repeal Immunity” movement, to challenge telecommunications immunity provisions which Congress passed.
3. Encourage more self-sufficient, local communities which don’t depend on electronic communications to organize. Meet your neighbors. Create local social hubs, etc.
4. Other ideas welcome.
It’s fundamentally important that we know what the government is doing, and that if we don’t approve, we are able to stop it. Rights must be exercised, or they wither away.
1Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Senate Joins House in Caving to White House Immunity Demands,” July 9, 2008, https://www.eff.org/press/archives/2008/07/09
2Meyer, Josh and Menn, Joseph, Los Angeles Times, “U.S. Spying Is Much Wider, Some Suspect,” December 25, 2005, http://articles.latimes.com/2005/dec/25/nation/na-spy25
3“Department of Justice Freedom of Information Act Reference Guide,” http://www.usdoj.gov/oip/referenceguidemay99.htm